“Visions of Great Usefulness and Progress”: A Chicago Photographer’s Studio and Black Modern Subjectivity

Posed photograph of group of people i Woodard’s Studio, Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Home-Coming, 1929 (detail). Robert Langmuir African American photograph collection, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

In 1928, when interviewed for a Chicago-based publication, photographer William E. Woodard stated that he was motivated to migrate to this city in order to realize “visions of great usefulness and progress.” Like many other early twentieth century African American entrepreneurs, he believed in the potential of racial pride to counter discrimination and provide a pathway toward social and economic success. Despite a career that lasted over thirty years and established numerous franchises, his efforts, like those of his fellow black commercial photographers, remain largely unknown today. Today’s presentation addresses this absence and investigates the commercial value and cultural capital generated by an African American owned and operated photograph studio from the 1920s into the 1940s.

Amy M. Mooney is an Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago and the 2019-2020 Terra Foundation Visiting Professor of American Art at Oxford University. Her publications include a monograph, Archibald J. Motley, Jr., as well as contributions to anthologies and catalogs includingBeyond Face: New Perspectives in Portraiture (2018). She is a recipient of fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Terra Foundation for American Art. In collaboration with Deborah Willis, she recently launched a digital humanities project, “Say It with Pictures” Then and Now that recovers and examines Chicago’s African American photographers from the 1890s into the 1930s. At Oxford, she will complete her second book, Portraits of Noteworthy Character: Negotiating a Collective American Identity, a project that investigates the social function of portraiture.

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28 Oct 2019

The Courtauld Institute of Art, Vernon Square, Penton Rise, King’s Cross, London